South Dakota National Guard is going to Texas – and neither state will talk about it

Sgt. Tyler James Saucerman, with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (one of four major commands for the South Dakota Army National Guard), is promoted to Staff Sgt. at North Fort Hood, Texas, June 26, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Brandon Julson)

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

Gov. Greg Abbott last week rejuvenated former President Donald Trump’s border wall project, revised a “border crisis disaster declaration” with Texas counties and welcomed South Dakota’s plans to send 50 of its National Guard troops to help out.

And those troops are certainly coming. South Dakota is “currently sending” them, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Kristi Noem said Wednesday. But he wouldn’t say when they would arrive, who they would report to, where they would go or what they would do when they got there.

The Texas National Guard referred questions about the South Dakotans’ deployment to the U.S. Army, which referred the questions back to the Texas National Guard, which then declined to confirm that the out-of-state troops would be under its control, or comment on any aspect of their mission.

The Twitter rhetoric of Abbott and several other red-state governors against illegal immigration and President Joe Biden has contained little verifiable information about the latest application of resources by individual states toward border security.

“Texas military forces are making progress on building the border barrier,” Abbott tweeted Saturday. “Land owners along the border have agreed to allow the state to put up temporary fencing. Texas will keep communities across the state safe.”

Abbott’s office was mute when asked where along the border that barrier was being built and which landowners were helping.

As Independence Day came and went, there was little evidence of that work. News media were not allowed to observe the border barrier that Abbott said the Texas guardsmen were constructing. A governor’s office spokeswoman, Renae Eze, blasted Biden’s “reckless open border policies” in a statement responding to a long list of questions Wednesday but didn’t provide answers to them.

Similarly, Gov. Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, said by email that “for security reasons, operational specifics will not be disclosed” regarding the 50 guardsmen she was sending. All were volunteers from among the South Dakota National Guard’s more than 4,200 soldiers and airmen, he said.

Fury referred questions to a June 29 news release announcing the contingent was being sent “in response to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s request for help to respond to ongoing violations of state and federal law by illegal aliens crossing the unsecured border.”

Perhaps the biggest question remains a Texas-sized mystery: Why would the Austin-based guard, which recently described itself as the nation’s largest National Guard organization at 24,178 members, need manpower from other states?

Political observers had a cynical answer.

“Abbott realizes that his support among the Republican base has eroded over the last year and a half due to his center-right approach to COVID-19,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, noting the GOP rank and file chafed over mask mandates and business shutdowns during the pandemic.

“So this is a way for Abbott to gain the support of those individuals back as well as appeal to people who are supporters of Donald Trump, because Trump remains the most popular Republican among Republicans here in Texas,” Jones said.

Trump and Abbott appeared together last week on the border, an area that has become as much a political stage as a magnet for migrants from Mexico and Central America. Successive Texas leaders, all Republicans, have baked the border into their political brands.

The border has seen a heavy military presence for years, with guardsmen and active-duty troops posted from Texas to California.

Abbott, in a June 10 letter with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, declared Texas a disaster and said he had sent 1,000 Department of Public Safety troopers to the border. They asked other governors to “send all available law enforcement resources” to both states under an existing emergency assistance compact and called Texas and Arizona “‘ground zero’ for this crisis.”

Abbott added that Texas has spent $3.5 billion since 2004 to secure the border. Guardsmen in Texas are under state status and paid by state taxpayers, said National Guard Bureau spokesman Wayne Hall.

Nearly 3,800 active duty troops are backing up Department of Homeland Security agencies on the entire southern border, according to U.S. Northern Command, a Defense Department organization with components from the various armed services.

In a program started by Trump, there are now 2,400 troops in Texas, 200 in New Mexico, 560 in Arizona, and 550 in California. The number of service members deployed in support of the mission fluctuates as units rotate in and out.

Abbott said March 6 that he’d send about 700 Texas National Guard troops in support of Operation Lone Star to enhance the Department of Public Safety’s border security operations. The guard said its troops observe and report from observation posts, providing additional eyes and ears on the ground to DPS officers.

The DPS is the lead agency for the border mission and under it, guardsmen do not detain migrants.

The operation has been funded by the Legislature and just received $1.1 billion for the next two years, a $200 million increase. It’s mostly been secretive, the work of state troopers and guardsmen kept far from media scrutiny, but the guard said no soldier has been killed or injured in the years its troops have been on the mission.

A month ago, Abbott held a Border Security Summit in Del Rio, outlining the disaster declaration and efforts to bolster law enforcement and jails. He unveiled a new interstate compact and a call to other states for resources, as well as the construction of “border barriers” and the wall. In late May, the governor ordered 1,000 DPS troopers and guardsmen to counter the smuggling of fentanyl over the border.

At least six Texas border counties are part of an updated disaster declaration Abbott issued July 1. All but one of them — Maverick — voted for Trump in last year’s presidential election. In all, 26 of 31 counties in the declaration supported Trump in 2020, though only two of them were near the border.

How the latest iteration of Abbott’s border mission will work isn’t clear. The governor’s office said nothing when asked what states were sending troops and law enforcement officers, how many were coming and what they would do.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Texas Guard would say where the state troopers and soldiers would operate.

Besides South Dakota, other states have said they are sending law enforcement officers to Texas and Arizona. Abbott and Ducey, in their joint letter, said those officers would be authorized to arrest migrants who cross the border.

Abbott recently issued a call for jailers across Texas to help border sheriffs operate detention facilities and provide jail beds for those arrested on state charges related to the border crisis, and directed state agencies to work with counties to establish alternative detention facilities to ensure enough jail capacity for immigrants who are charged. But his office this week did not say how many jailers have volunteered for that effort, if the state has secured any alternative detention facilities and whether the state or localities are paying for them.

President George W. Bush called up a total of 29,000 guardsmen in 2006 for Operation Jump Start, which improved Border Patrol facilities and upgraded roads. It cost Washington $756 million in its first 16 months.

Gov. Rick Perry worked the same playbook a year later, ordering 604 Texas Guard troops to patrol the Rio Grande in “security platoons” as part of a “rolling surge” of more than 6,800 personnel — from the Guard, police and sheriffs’ departments, the DPS, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Coast Guard.

President Barack Obama ordered 1,200 troops to the border under Operation Phalanx, which began in 2010.

Abbott has made a lengthy extension of the border wall that Trump started a centerpiece of his latest campaign. He set aside $250 million for the project and sought to crowdsource funding for it.

Despite all the unanswered questions, there are signs Abbott has gotten at least a short-term boost after launching the latest border crackdown. He touted a poll showing that 46 percent of Texans approve of his handling of immigration and the border, while fewer — 37 percent — disapprove, while Biden’s management of the issue generally got a thumbs down.

In South Dakota, news reports revealed that Noem turned to a billionaire Trump donor, Willis Johnson, to fund the 50 guardsmen in Texas. She called the border “a national security crisis that requires the kind of sustained response only the National Guard can provide” and accused Biden of being “unable or unwilling” to solve it.

“My message to Texas is this: help is on the way,” Noem said.

Her action drew some jeers.

The issue is “all about politics,” said Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He said Noem is one of a cast of thousands looking at the presidential race of 2024.

“How do you stand out? Make dramatic moves like this. She can say, my opponents offered just words; I took action!” he added in an email.

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